Dancing to the Tunes of an Algorithm: Mapping Labor Through Franco Berardi and Byung-Chul Han — by Muzaffar Karim
February 20, 2022
In this essay, Muzaffar Karim sets an important series of discussions in motion by evaluating four concepts—Time, Labor, Consent, Technology—and their interrelationship in the modern world-system. Karim explores relevant theoretical ideas by Franco Berardi and Byun-Chul Han, applying them to an original and multimodal critique that takes examples from a variety of classic and popular films. The writer also cites earlier work on such topics by influential thinkers such as Deleuze, Guattari, Marx, Foucault, Baudrillard, and others, in a synthesis of ideas that harmonize consistently with core perspectives on set notions and valuations of employment, work, wealth, happiness, etc. These set notions and valuations are problematized and critiqued within the prism of an era governed by digital platforms, data networks, web apps, and big data, all of which have led to the genesis of a new human subject. While maintaining an accessible academic tone, Karim’s essay is equally entertaining and abundant in relatable references and observations that invite critical consideration and needed reflection. Note: The word "labor" is used as Franco Berardi refers to it in his writing.

Question

It is late in the night during vacation time. The nature outside is tranquil, giving you all the time to read, watch a movie or to just rest and do nothing when all of a sudden, your smartphone disturbs you with a notification. You ignore it. One more notification. Ignore. And again. And then again. Finally, you unlock your phone and read the messages from the notification bar. Two colleagues, in one official group among many, are planning to arrange a meeting the next day. You lock your phone and go back to the book or the movie and even change sides while lying down. Meanwhile, a barrage of notifications has silently been accumulating and after a few minutes you open the phone again.

To lighten the burden of mounting notifications, you enter the chat from one of many and read the entire thread that you do not want to, do not have to, but you do nevertheless. “Why?” you question. Why will the employees of an organisation, and that too during an official vacation, leave the comfort of wintery nights to discuss and plan something so enthusiastically and elaborately? Why will an employee cut short family time and instead invest it in an organisation even when that organisation is not asking for such over-eager attention (and that too beyond work hours)? How is the employee doing this without basic awareness of consent in mind, and without considering that there is any harm in disturbing someone at this odd hour of the night by obliging and prompting others to respond? This is not a one-time occurrence by any means. And this is not only my story but that of all sorts of people working in various offices, organisations, and corporations. Could this be read as what is now commonly referred to as “Hustle culture”?

One can always reject such queries by taking a personal route: you know such colleagues and it is in their behaviour; these people are those chamchas that we have everywhere in offices of all sorts; these people suffer from a grandiose delusion believing that the whole organisation, office or corporation will crumble the moment they stop poking; they have not nurtured a hobby and do not know what to do with their own time; their life is so hollow that the echo of the official life resounds on and on beyond official hours. One can stop here and be satisfied had not the activity involved you!

And then you turn to question yourself as you question the said employee’s odd-hours-of-the-night antics. Why in the world did you check the notification? What prompted you to pick up the phone? Did “this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion” make you a “subject” in the Althusserian sense? Wait! Before taking an academic excursion, one needs to justify why such a trip is needed. The trip is needed because the above example stands at an intersection of four concepts: Time, Labor, Consent, Technology. The interrelationships between the four have profoundly changed since the arrival of industrialization when people started to labor for wages in an organized way.

History

The year is 1936 and Charlie Chaplin is a tramp in Modern Times working as a factory worker on an assembly line. The movie starts with a clock marking time and within a few minutes we see the tramp losing work as soon as he is distracted or indulges in communication. The iconic scene comes when he obsessively, in an effort, tries to match his bodily speed with the speed of the machine. In this effort, he goes inside the interstices of the machine obsessively tightening the bolts. However, his presence inside the machine is a fault, a blockade and to correct it the machine is reversed and the tramp is pulled out only to be seen as a reified being. What is interesting to note here is that the communication is discouraged due to its relationship with time and productivity. To remove the clog blocking it, the machine is reversed, the scene is reversed for us—there is a notion of time present here that can be stopped, moved forwards or backwards.

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936) | © United Artists/Charlie Chaplin

The year is 2022 and I am writing this article on a laptop. I am also working for an organisation, my smartphone is on, and it buzzes continuously with News, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp updates. I check the notifications, open some links, like a thing, and share another. I type further on and attend a call from my colleagues—I am also inside the machine but unlike the tramp, I am not a clog. The machine runs smoothly because I am inside it or should I say that it is all around me, wrapping itself around me. While the feeding machine in Chaplin’s Modern Times fails, this machine that surrounds me, feeds me for I can order food, and keep myself entertained all the time. It wraps and nurtures me like Neo from The Matrix sleeping in a pod. More of that later, but there definitely is a shift here, one that according to Franco “Bifo” Berardi is a shift from the industrial bodily work to post-industrial cognitive labor or mental labor. This is a shift from proletariat to cognitariat. In the industrial era, according to Berardi, it was the body that was put to work, disciplined, made malleable so that it can be productive. Various institutions were forged to discipline this body—factory, home, prison, etc.

Neo inside a Power Plant in The Matrix (1999) | © Warner Brothers/The Wachowskis

The body in the industrial era was confined to a space and territory where it performed all the repetitive productive functions in front of an assembly line. Communication was strictly prohibited, the time was regimented, and the soul (thoughts, feelings, emotions animating the body) was of no concern at all to the industrial capitalist. What you thought, what your tastes were, what you did outside official hours was of no concern to industrial capitalism as long as you completed the tasks of soulless repetitive labor. However, with the advancement of industry and technology, we entered what Berardi calls Semiocapitalism, a capitalism that “takes the mind, language and creativity as its tools for the production of value.” In this post-industrial corporate era, the soul is put to work. The shift that Berardi is arguing is not misplaced. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explicated this shift time and again in their writing and Jean Baudrillard has been educating us about this since the 1980s. For Deleuze we have moved into ‘control societies’, leaving behind the ‘disciplinary society’ that in itself was a replacement of ‘sovereign society’.

While as disciplinary society works through a technology of confinement elaborated meticulously by Michel Foucault time and again in his oeuvre, the control society “no longer operate[s] by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication.” In The Poverty of Philosophy, Karl Marx sets a sort of correspondence between the economic landscape and the machinery involved when he says, “The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” In the same way, the thermodynamic machines correspond to the disciplinary society for Deleuze and what defines control societies are the “cybernetic machines and computers.” All those movies of 1990s like The Matrix, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich that Jack Nugent (in his video essay on his YouTube channel Now You See It) calls ‘cubicle movie’ were actually trying to visualize this very transformation.

George Tooker’s Landscape with Figures (1965) also comments on the Cubicle Culture

Scenes from Jacques Tati’s film Playtime (1967) © Bernard Maurice, René Silvera/Jacques Tati

More importantly David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), Crash (1996) and Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) captured the fascination of this new labourer metamorphosing into something new, something strange. But the film that captures brilliantly, for me at least, the transformation of this new labourer entering a new era is Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 movie Tetsuo: The Iron Man. The relationship of flesh and metal, body and machines is visualized the way it should be visualized. In the film, this transition does not take place metaphorically but is depicted viscerally through a metal fetishist’s transformation into a machine. So what happened to the dystopian vision of all these movies? Did the labourer/worker of post-industrial society become a monster or was he/she metamorphosed into something sinister or did the ‘Skynet’ (from James Cameron’s Terminator franchise) win the war over humanity?

A scene from Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Scene

Nothing as dramatic but something equally poignant happened to the labourer/worker/employee as they entered this post-industrial control society. For Byung-Chul Han, the labourer/worker/employee as well as all of us have become ‘achievement-subject/s’. The achievement-subject is a subject who is not coerced by some external force to do the work; rather it has transformed itself into an achievement subject who works out of its own will or accord. Han distinguishes this achievement-subject from the obedient-subject. The obedient-subject was the subject of disciplinary society, who obeyed rules, time regimentation within the enclosures of factory, school, home, prison and owed an obligation to these external forces.

The achievement-subject, by contrast, has no external obligation or a need to follow a discipline, it pursues its own ‘freedom’ twisted along the concept of pleasure and tries to maximize this achievement. “It is” according to Han “a self-starting entrepreneur” with an excess positivity of Just Do It. On this, Han elaborates as follows:

…the achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom—that is, to the free constraint of maximizing achievement. Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation. This is more efficient than allo-exploitation, for the feeling of freedom attends it. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Perpetrator and victim can no longer be distinguished.

This achievement-subject becomes its own project, and it overworks itself for maximization—a typical animal laborans. In this process, it becomes its own exploiter as well as the exploited, the master as well as the slave, the proletariat as well as the bourgeoisie.

“Today,” argues Han, “everyone is an auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise. People are now master and slave in one. Even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.” This reminds me of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) where Mason says:

I finally figured it out. It’s like when they realized it was gonna be too expensive to actually build cyborgs and robots. I mean, the costs of that were impossible. They decided to just let humans turn themselves into robots. That’s what’s going on right now. I mean, why not? They’re billions of us just laying around, not really doing anything. We don’t cost anything. We’re even pretty good at self-maintenance and reproducing constantly. And as it turns out, we’re already biologically programmed for our little cyborg upgrades. I read this thing the other day about how When you hear that ding on your inbox, you get like a dopamine rush in your brain. It’s like we’re being chemically rewarded for allowing ourselves to be brainwashed. How evil is that? We’re fucked.

We need no metaphors to understand how we have become cyborgs, fully controlled and disciplined in this cybernetic machinery. Just imagine the amount of data we wilfully, without coercion submit to multiple digital platforms—our names, vital information, opinions, choices, ideas, location etc. Open any app and someone is definitely dancing to a viral tune, someone is sharing that trending meme, someone is debating that hot topic, someone is watching the most discussed movie/show. We are nothing but an arrangement of digital data dancing to the tunes of an algorithm.

An AI bot suggesting Art and Culture to the humans of late Capitalism

Behind the Scene

How does this happen that the achievement-subject finds pleasure in overworking and does not think that it is auto-exploiting itself? What perpetuates this state of affairs? There are three ways to understand this. First, we need to understand the way Semiocapitalism focuses not on the body but on the soul and transforms one into an achievement-subject. The mental-laborer offers its soul—the thinking, emotional, creative energy— to the production and in doing so it becomes what Berardi calls a ‘neuro-worker’. What this neuro-worker does is that it prepares its nervous system “as an active receiving terminal for as much time as possible. The entire lived day becomes subject to a semiotic activation which becomes directly productive only when necessary.” It is like the people in the movie The Matrix who are doubly subjected. They are hogtied to all the machines within the pod and then inside the Matrix they are, as Morpheus tells Neo, “Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters”—the regular workers who can be reconfigured or altered anytime to become ‘the Agents’ for the Matrix.

Michel Foucault’s disciplinary power cannot, according to Han, give us a correct estimation of this new ‘neuronal power’ centred around excess positivity. It is no wonder then, as Han argues, that the ailments corresponding to this age are mainly neuronal—depression, burnout, auto-aggression, etc. Second, we have to understand that the cognitive labor is essentially a labor of communication as illustrated by Baudrillard, Deleuze and Berardi. The industrial worker as we have already seen was working within a time limit (9 to 5 for example) and within a space and territory. The cognitive labourer, in contrast, works in a cyberspace in front of a screen with no time limit. The communication is no longer prohibited rather encouraged. It is no wonder then that many new organisations or corporations gift a smartphone or a laptop at the time of joining.

If the body (industrial) was spatiotemporally confined, the soul (post-industrial) is free to roam the cyberspace and can be called to work anytime with a mere ring. In this context, The Matrix was not wrong in placing the phones at the centre of its plot with people being able to move in and out of the system exclusively via phones. Interestingly, the first zoom that happens in the movie is at the beginning when it pans inside the green computer terminal digital rain, then again into the phone, then inside Neo’s mouth eloquently showing a pattern between digitalization and communication, and between code and body. In between these three zoom scenes comes the scene where Neo’s mouth is sealed and he is unable to speak, with Agent Smith telling him: “What good is a phone call if you are unable to speak?”

The interrogation scene from The Matrix (1999) | © Warner Brothers/The Wachowskis

Smartphones apparently give us freedom to roam cyberspace but this freedom also becomes our slavery, the chains that bind us. Phones are efficient surveillance tools and also the means that deliver us back to the system with a mere ringtone. We are in a sort of Mobius-strip-universe where freedom turns into slavery with a mere change in angle. These phones act as windows that open unto an infinite (digital) universe but also exist as doors back into our own confinement. Or as Berardi’s says, “all exits are also an entry, every receiver is also a transmitter” which brings us back to Han’s idea of auto-exploitation.

Third, and most important is the twisted concept of happiness circulated by the present economic system centred around buying or purchasing. In an interview with Didier Eribon, Deleuze proclaims, “The current political situation is very muddled. People tend to confuse the quest for freedom with the embrace of capitalism.” Not only people but even countries and institutions are prone to this confusion. Listen to any speech by a minister of any country, they will offer this model of happiness as a way out. Even universities have started to quantify the achievement of teachers through metrics and numerical data, which is then passed on to the authorities to check whether the numbers correspond to their productivity. In other words, it becomes simple—if you are productive and happy, you are an ideal citizen of the polis or an ideal member of the institution or the corporation. One can feel the pain of Jeffery Goines in the film 12 Monkeys (1995) when the character says:

There’s the television. It’s all right there—all right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. Commercials! We’re not productive anymore. We don’t make things anymore. It’s all automated. What are we for then? We’re consumers, Jim. Yeah. Okay, okay. Buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen. But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then, I ask you? What? Mentally ill. Fact, Jim, fact—if you don’t buy things—toilet paper, new cars, computerized yo-yos, electrically-operated sexual devices, stereo systems with brain-implanted headphones, screwdrivers with miniature built-in radar devices, voice-activated computers…

Jeffrey Goines in 12 Monkeys (1995) | © Universal Pictures

The confusion is deliberate and is passed off as a project for the achievement-subject to accomplish, to complete a set of tasks and to reach certain milestones that build greater momentum at the expense of sacrificing and surrendering freedom. The achievement-subject believes that it is overworking to buy happiness by means of the purchasing power and accumulating wealth while real life sweeps by. There is a need, as Berardi urges, to change this model of happiness through a revaluation of the concept of wealth.

Conclusion

Satyajit Ray’s 1963 movie Mahanagar ends with Subrata consoling his wife Arati who has resigned from her hard-earned job with these words: “Earning our daily bread has made us cowards.” What Ray calls cowardice in the then age of industrial Calcutta is a wholesale way of life these days. The theories provided by Baudrillard and Deleuze then and more recently by Berardi and Han are alarming but timely. Whether they answer to the questions of labor, time, consent, technology in the Third World countries and their interrelationships to the emerging economy is open for discussion but at least they provide some kind of a trajectory, a mapping of what is happening around us. Whether these theories entail any hope or pessimism cannot be answered but understanding them gives, as Deleuze says, ways “of finding new weapons.”

From Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) | ©R.D. Banshal & Co./Ray

Works Cited

Byung-Chul Han, Burnout Society. California: Stanford University Press, 2015. Print.

Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. New York: Verso, 2017. Print.

Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Soul at Work. Delhi: Aakar Books, 2017. Print.

Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Print.

Gilles Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness. New York: Semiotext(e), 2006. Print.

Karl Marx, “Man’s Thought Corresponds to his Social Relations.” in Reader in Marxist Philosophy: From the Writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Eds. Howard Selsam and Harry Martel. Lucknow: Rahul Foundation, 2010. Print.

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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/muzaffarkarim/" target="_self">Muzaffar Karim</a>

Muzaffar Karim

Muzaffar Karim was born in Kashmir and completed his MA from the University of Kashmir. He went on to pursue his Ph.D. from JNU and is currently employed as an Assistant Professor at the University of Kashmir, South Campus. Muzaffar Karim also writes poetry and short stories that have appeared in various newspapers and journals. He is a regular blogger at http://muzaffar-askesis.blogspot.in